A Giant Figure
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce reviews the biography of pop culture icon André the Giant…
The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of André the Giant
Writers: Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade with Tony Stabile
Publisher: ECW Press
The world of pro-wrestling is built upon obfuscation and lies. From its central tenet (to give the illusion of a legitimate sporting contest) to the exaggerated personas of the wrestlers themselves, it’s a form of entertainment where exaggeration is key. Given that he was billed as ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’, it’s unsurprising that there was a mythic quality to André Roussimoff – known to most of the world as André the Giant – in both stature and perception. While the reality of both his physical presence and the colourful nature of his lifestyle were impressive in and of themselves, there were still embellished and embroidered to an extent were fact and fiction have become hard to determine. Was he 7ft 4in as his bios often claimed? Did he regularly drink 100s of bottles in one sitting? Did playwright Samuel Beckett used to give André a lift to school? Authors Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade do a creditable job of attempting to tell the story of pop cultural icon while trying to sort out the giant truth amongst the enormous lies.
Almost immediately they note that Andre’s life even began with the facts of his life muddied: the registrar muddled up his name on his birth certificate. Born in a small French village, André was a a big baby for his age but has a pretty normal existence for the time. Working hard on the family’s farm, going to school and living a generally happy life with his brothers, sister and parents.
In these early sections, Hébert and Laprade have done their research – talking to André’s surviving relatives amongst others – and already begin to tackle the issues of factual distortion. They famous rumour that Samuel Beckett would give André a lift to school, if not dismissed, is at least given a more sensible context. They also examine where these rumours originated – and more often than not, it was André himself who started them. Once you become a pro wrestler, working the crowd becomes second nature.
With André beginning to grow significantly from the age of 14, the book follows his journey from being discovered in Paris and trained to be a wrestler, subsequent travails on the wrestling circuit in Europe and his big break in North America. Crucially, the book dismisses the idea that André only became a wrestling star when he fell under the control of promoter Vince MacMahon Sr (the father of wrestling Svengali Vince MacMahon Jr.) and the WWWF (precursor of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment). It was in Montreal – where André felt happy being amongst so many French speakers – where his star began to rise and was only solidified by the time he moved on the US.
Throughout it all André’s stature is shown as both a blessing and a curse. His huge frame was what made him a physical spectacle and drew crowds to come and see him. He was well protected (he seldom lost, and even if he did the losses were usually for the benefit of a local crowd and kept away from national exposure) and became one of the most well-paid wrestlers – and athletes in general – during the 70s and early 80s. He was also a well-known name at a time when wrestling had little to no cache amongst the mainstream media.
But the size that gave him success also brought him misery. The normal world was just not made for him – frequent trips to wrestle in Japan would be miserable as he would be cramped in a plane while the hotel rooms would be barely adequate. His life was one of uncomfortable amenities and people staring at him. Not to mention that his size was slowly killing him. Suffering from Acromegaly – a disease that caused him to grow abnormally – André refused to get it treated, believing that his abnormal size was the thing that brought him wrestling fame. The book likens his decision to a Faustian pact.
As the book charts his continual fame, it also portrays André as a gentle man who was loved and respected by those who he worked with. While he could be intimidating to those he disliked, he was loyal to those he loved and would be generous to a fault. While his private life is dwelt upon (even touching upon some delicate questions of physicality) his love life is still rather elusive, though his relationship with estranged daughter Robin is given a balanced examination. The book also explains why he loved wrestling so much – it wasn’t just the roar of an appreciative crowd. He could hang around the back, play cards and be ‘one of the boys’ without being treated like a freak.
There’s an irony that the peak of André’s pop culture fame – with his match against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III and his appearance in The Princess Bride – came at the time when his body was completely breaking down. Often unable to stand properly and in constant pain, it was a struggle for André to find peace in his final few years.
The writing style is heavy on the factual, but there are enough flourishes and moments that keep the narrative from becoming dry and dull. Hébert and Laprade are respectful to their subject but the book doesn’t drift into the realms of hagiography, and they’re willing to point out André’s more unpleasant moments. And those who have interest in André merely because of his pop culture status may find things rather hard going – a working knowledge of the machinations of pro wrestling both inside and outside of the ring are something of a must.
This a superbly researched piece of work, that tries to unpick truth amongst the legends. In the world of pro wrestling this is a particularly hard task and Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade should be commended for managing to do so while still providing a heartfelt tribute to a man who was larger than life – in all senses of the world.
The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of André the Giant by Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade with Tony Stabile (ECW Press, Kindle Edition out on 14th April £13.19, Hardcover out on 30th April £23.99)